My Favorite Films of 2021

As with every year, it was a great year for cinema if one knew where to look. After serving as a “screener” for one film festival (Chicago Underground) and a juror at another (Lake County), I probably watched more feature films in 2021 than I have in the past few years — although, because I spent most of the year working on a new feature myself, I spent less time writing about them. Below is a list of my top ten favorites and ten runners-up that I’ll be submitting to Cine-file Chicago, along with links to my original reviews where applicable.

10. Faya Dayi (Jessica Beshir, Ethiopia/USA)

9. In Front of Your Face (Hong Sang-soo, S. Korea)

8. The Souvenir Part II (Joanna Hogg, UK)

7. Benedetta (Paul Verhoeven, France)

6. Cry Macho (Clint Eastwood, USA)

My esteem for this late-period Clint Eastwood masterpiece has only grown since my first viewing. After some bumpy narrative exposition and the introduction of some red-herring genre trappings, it settles into a sublime, near-plotless meditation on the importance of slowing down and enjoying life: you know, just hanging out with other people, petting animals, taking a nap, dancing, making food. That sort of thing. To paraphrase something Roberto Rossellini once said about Chaplin’s A KING IN NEW YORK, it’s the film of a free man. You can hear me discuss it with Bennett Glace on the Split Tooth Media Podcast here. You can read my original review for Cine-file here.

5. Annette (Leos Carax, France)

4. The Power of the Dog (Jane Campion, New Zealand)

3. Shadow Kingdom (Alma Har’el, USA)

A lot of film people aren’t even aware of the Alma Har’el/Bob Dylan masterpiece SHADOW KINGDOM. Or, if they are aware of it, they don’t realize that it’s actually a movie. It was advertised as a “livestream event” in advance of its premiere on Veeps.com, which led many people to assume that it would be a concert (whether live or pre-recorded). What we got instead was a gorgeously photographed black-and-white art film, shot over seven days on multiple sets on a soundstage in Santa Monica, in which Dylan and a group of masked musicians mime along to a sublime set of new recordings of old Dylan songs. In my brief Letterboxd review, I called it “a visual album, not unlike Beyonce’s LEMONDADE as directed by Straub/Huillet” but if you want a deep dive into what makes it a truly exceptional film, you should listen to Laura Tenschert’s amazing analysis here. It was only available to stream for a week via Veeps (presumably before disappearing into the ether forever), but I might be able to show it to you if you want to come over to my place…

2. Drive My Car (Ryusuke Hamaguchi, Japan)

1. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (Ryusuke Hamaguchi, Japan)

It isn’t often that I feel this way about a movie but when I saw the first of the two masterpieces that Ryusuke Hamaguchi released this year, I felt like I should have made it myself. Reviewed for Cine-file here.

Runners Up (in Alphabetical Order) :

The Card Counter (Schrader, USA)

Feast (Leyendekker, Netherlands)

Malignant (Wan, USA)

Memoria (Weerasethakul, Colombia)

Our Father (Smith, USA)

Procession (Greene, USA)

Shiva Baby (Seligman, Canada/USA)

This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection (Mosese, Lesotho)

Topology of Sirens (Davies, USA) – Reviewed for Cine-file here.

Zeros and Ones (Ferrara, Italy/USA)

About michaelgloversmith

Filmmaker, author and Film Studies instructor. View all posts by michaelgloversmith

4 responses to “My Favorite Films of 2021

  • marteeeen56

    Thanks for the list. Same 1 and 2 for me. What did you think of Red Rocket, Licorice Pizza and Petite Maman?

    • michaelgloversmith

      I thought LICORICE PIZZA was pretty good but it’s my least favorite PTA film since MAGNOLIA. It feels like a few different movies that have been smashed together in a way that I find unsatisfying (the Benny Safdie subplot at the end feels like a different movie entirely – even though I liked Safdie’s performance). And I thought Bradley Cooper was extremely unfunny. I’m a little puzzled by the universal acclaim.

      I haven’t yet seen RED ROCKET or PETITE MAMAN.

  • Joel Wicklund

    I need to see some Hamaguchi films. My foreign language cinema intake has been pitiful the last few years and COVID made it even worse. Glad to see “The Card Counter” on your list. I did not expect back-to-back gems from Schrader at this point in his career. Carax was always pretty fascinating to me (though I confess “Holy Motors” left me cold), so I need to catch up with “Anette.”

    Did you see “Ema?” I was torn between admiration and annoyance, but I think Larrain is a pretty bold director. Have not seen the much more buzzed-about “Spencer.” Don’t give a s–t about the Royals, but I have liked a lot of his films, so I should see it.

    I wish “Cry Macho” was as plotless as you imagine it to be. 🙂

    No longer tied to release years or arbitrary separations between theatrical (my dying love), home viewing, series and stand-alone features, nor harboring any illusions of having any understanding of what the “state of cinema” is (or really what cinema is), here are my favorite “first views” of 2021:

    1. Derek DelGaudio’s In & Of Itself [2021]
    2. Get Carter [1971]
    3. The Power of the Dog [2021]
    4. Summer of Soul [2021]
    5. News of the World [2020]
    6. The Card Counter [2021]
    7. The Amazing Mr. X [1948]
    8. Nomadland [2020]
    9. Thunder Road [2018]
    10. Last Night in Soho [2021]

    I don’t care that “In & Of Itself” is a stylistically plain documentary/performance film…it pulls off the near-impossible trick of capturing live show intimacy and was just simply the most profound reflection on identity (inner and outer) I’ve seen in recent memory. Never trust promotional blurbs, but the Hulu summary of it as a “lyric poem” is actually pretty accurate.

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